Edited and Updated June 2016
Equivocation, whatever it can do to abet the mind, can stultify the stuttering soul. Hyperbole, once or twice, may be the essence of wit. Permit me to speak to the winds without bourgeois constraint or prudence; it is what Charlie Chaplin, one of the most untrammeled purveyors of unrestricted emotion as a principle of good folk, would have wanted. City Lights may just be cinema’s greatest gift to the world: a truly, unabashedly sentimental masterpiece. By 1931, the time of the film’s release, Chaplin – a decade into his celebrity and his most prodigiously productive period – was confronting the flux of the world around him: in cinema, the shift from silent film to talking pictures, and in the world, a post-WWI decay threshing national boundaries into nothingness and instigating a worldwide depression. The only salve for Chaplin was the often sour sting of excessive sweetness, an emotional delicacy or an after dinner mint for some films that Chaplin preferred to envision as a main course. .
And City Lights is violently sweet. Born and bred for an ailing public in the early stages of what may have been America’s greatest crisis, the narrative is straightforward to the point of sublime purity: a tramp (Chaplin), fallen on hard-times, falls in love with a blind flower-salesperson (Virginia Cherrill) and tries to win her affection, while also befriending a millionaire (Harry Myers) he saves from a suicide attempt. It’s a timeless film, armed to the teeth with the perilous, provocative emotional fluctuation that Chaplin always took to heart as the thesis of his being. Sentiment is constructed in ethereal peaks as Chaplin’s film encompasses a volatile vision of lightning-rod emotion that never sits by and bides its time. We never “are”; we are always becoming, and within that proverbial switch of the mental status quo, Chaplin excavates a livelihood that is always – much like the Tramp tremulously avoiding fall after fall without his knowledge – a prism of potential futures. Chaplin’s oeuvre is hardly demarcated to the “depression-era” box though; there’s an imaginative interrogation of experience here that doubles as the gregarious savant’s philosophy of all life.
With City Lights, Chaplin wanted not to advance cinema but to unleash a totem, a fortress, a testament to its existent power, and he set out to do so with a tale of classical restraint almost antediluvian in its affection for the elegance of a whimsical fable. It was released three years after silent cinema was almost instantly imprisoned by the rise of “talkies”, and while it didn’t reignite the form, City Lights was a monstrous hit, a paean to an implacable style raging against the dying of the light. Chaplin would make the mostly silent Modern Times five years later, but City Lights was the last purely silent film from the form’s greatest master. Fittingly, it plays like a manifesto to the blocking, the framing, the visual sculpting of the world, to the seismographic, sensory effervescence of ocular bewilderment, to the perceptual way humans glimpse their species through bodily reflex and facial contortion, through a sort of silent cinema of everyday life.
Fittingly then, Chaplin’s body-first, outward-looking formalism primarily corporealizes as a slapstick comedy, an assault of lithe, evasive, delectably unreliable comic entropy reined in only just to the tip of human sanity. The Tramp’s ticks are not the only flutters of inconstant, uncontrollable variability in City Lights – if anything, Chaplin’s episodic film is a crusade for the value of variability as the structure of life itself. In a world where we can’t control the “big things”, so to speak, all that remain are the intimate displays of love and care which pepper Chaplin’s films, this one especially, the “leftovers” he elevates to the blood of life, the ultimate display of our humanity in the face of a world out to get us. Chance flips from prison to possibility, with the almost-fatal glimpses of near-death everywhere in the film serving as a bruised expression that chance is sometimes all we have left. In a world beleaguered by a never-dead belief in Enlightenment-era individual volition, Chaplin dares to advance a thesis excised of rationality, regulation, hierarchy, and method. The variability of life, that which we don’t control, is not only the de facto state-of-matter for life but the source of its beauty.
As mentioned, Chaplin was unabashedly a humanist, and his films played like tonics for a weary age. Life-affirming doesn’t truly explain what Chaplin accomplishes in the film’s final image. Perhaps no word could accommodate its uncontainable resplendence, like a salve for anxiety with the world on its shoulders; uncalled for and unheralded, the ending is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sting that is almost vicious in its openhearted obliviousness to common sense. After Chaplin threshes the Tramp through a series of episodic dalliances with depression, the film concludes in an explosion of ecstatic truth.
There’s a temporal demarcation to the conclusion, however, that mutters, under its ostensible glee, a whisper of the elusive nature of permanent happiness. Chaplin’s characters, embodied presences first and foremost, uncover purpose in the sights and minute-to-minute experiences of existence rather than the grandiose ideas or the over-weening theories. Beautiful this may be, but Chaplin’s vision is also deceptively daunting; the present-tense nature of the storytelling perches us on an always vacillating emotional maelstrom where every corner can hide the entire gamut of human emotion. Life is always teetering between all its selves in City Lights; the Tramp’s physical fleet-footedness and wrenching tweaks embody a restive soul that can never pinpoint true emotional stability in a world where experience is fundamentally unstable. Life, for him, is lived in the present, embodying the glistening capital-M Moment undercut with the awareness that a more statuesque, rigidified, long-term ecstasy is unknowable. Permanent happiness isn’t the ideal, but, rather, we can only strive for the ability to cope with flexibility and tangents, to ride the waves and brave the torrid flickers of sliding, errantly ricocheting emotional messiness, to mobilize our skill for adaptation in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. Happiness and sadness aren’t antithetical but mutually constitutive. Emotional chaos is not only utilitarian, but nearly divine.
With City Lights, Chaplin dares, with defiant innocence disguising a more restive soul-stressed sense of modern ennui, to confront the day-to-day doldrums of existence by rendering it malleable clay for one man’s playground for life itself. Cottoning to the celluloid like precious few artists before or since (likely the only American that was as innately attuned to the world of the screen at this time was Griffith), Chaplin’s pure comic anarchy and edge-of-your-seat physicality is intimately overgrown from a core respect for everyday human relations. Chaplin, more than any filmmaker, could throw himself into a role as writer, director, and actor, and display no shame whatsoever – he elevates an act as ersatz as walking down the street into pure gushing poetry, discovering the well of life in the faces, the eyes, the walks, the physicality of the world around us. By any means, his unforgiving humanism should not work; it should feel like a dark stain of melodrama on the landscape of cinema in a time where most of the masterpieces were unholy and demonic. But Chaplin was the cinema’s greatest humanist, and his unspeakably confident empathy and love in an era of darkness and oblivion is its own form of dynamic cinematic heresy. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can stand in its way.
Knife in the Water
Roman Polanski’s oppressively nihilistic first film is still among his best, and it may be his most stunningly mad and rigorously constructed monstrosity to this day. The story of a couple who pick up a hitchhiker and invite him on their sailing trip, it’s an almost real-time corkscrew of lurking, sweat-soaked heat and sexual panic that crescendos toward apocalyptic oblivion, even as it plays Polanksi’s contained formal precision like casual conversation. But it’s much more – a psychoanalytic commentary on masculinity, the age gap, and the way the stagnant bourgeoisie and the always-eager-to-move proletariat must play each other’s games in order to find their place in society. There’s a sense that Polanski, not yet thirty, was ravenously unfurling outward upon the world with a feral agitation, engulfing all subliminal crises into the black hole of his mind.
But it is, above all, a story of humans abstracted by social position, with the two male principles rendered less as human beings than stand-ins propped up by superiority drives and their unflagging need to control the bourgeois man’s wife. It’s all inlaid with a primordial kinesis-stasis quarrel in the film’s best scene, where the three play a sexually charged game in the cramped bowels of the ship where the two men are positioned visually on either side of the female staring at each other, her diffidently looking on as they simultaneously crush her and avoid her gaze altogether. The homoerotic implications are almost pungent – they stare at each other, not her, in their masculine competitiveness, and they spend the film “piercing” each other’s egos as they continually fight for superiority by piercing the ship with the young hitchhiker’s knife.
Polanski fixates on the knife and its phallic nature, connected to shots of the boat piercing the water with its longitudinal inhuman volition, catalyzing the humid conflict with its ever-stoking astringency until it absolves the screen in a ruthless pacifying act of finality. The director suffuses visual tension in the mundane, demonizing objects, motion, and the raw physicality of the situation even as he abstracts the affair to geometric proportions – the characters are framed in relation to each other, often using deep focus lenses, slicing through each other’s bodies visually as they form triangles of negative, empty space around them. The knife becomes one with the celluloid, capturing and piercing the monomaniacal focuses of the people in the film as reflections of protoplasmic human confrontation.
Polanski’s camera is often static as well – he doesn’t move around objects, but has the objects enter and leave the frame from torrid angles to invade us with their untrammeled physicality, even as they embody the fundamental tension of the narrative: people moving around each other while remaining stagnant, forever doomed to be captured in glimpses, to be witnessed only as figments, and not truly followed or known as whole beings. It’s an odd, devious formal style, neither completely closed and directed (a la Hitchcock, to name Polanski’s obvious English-language forebear) nor open and liberated, akin to a cornucopia of European directors who subtly influenced Polanski in their own ways.
The strangling demon child of the dialectic between the styles is a sense of space that is both an ever-extending void of potential possibilities (always malevolently opening out into nothingness) and discretely closing-down on us. The cramped, suffocating conditions of the ship juxtaposed with the empty openness of the wide watery grave around it reflect the same tension in the characters, who remain nauseatingly close even as they exist mentally and emotionally at an impenetrably great, empty distance from each other, and from us. The film has a deceptively, drearily funny and piercingly anarchic jazz score that juts into the film at unexpected moments, and this is the rare film to capture both the free-form guerrilla style improvisation and the ruthless, clinical formalism of such music. And for Polanski, who would derive a cottage-career out of the interstitial space between unwavering cynicism and a more free-associative wink-and-a-nod satire, it is the perfect debut feature.